By John Hall
Motorbooks International Publishing Company, 2008
by Ben Goebel
Ever wonder why some older members of the non-riding population give you the stink-eye when you get off your bike and come in from the elements, dressed in your riding gear? No matter how clean and quiet you and your bike are? No matter how friendly and polite you are trying to be? Well, you can thank early, outlaw biker gangs and Big Medias’ alarmed, overreaction to the gangs’ anti-social bedlam for wrecking it for the rest of us.
During the late 1960’s, John Hall, author of Riding on the Edge: A Motorcycle Outlaw’s Tale, was a member of the growing outlaw motorcycle club, the Pagans. Prior to this time, motorcycle clubs were mostly AMA based clubs consisting of middle aged members who wore black leather jackets while riding their profoundly festooned Duo-Glides to social events. The Outlaw clubs were NOT this type of club. They were younger; they rode stripped down, loud, chopped bikes. They wore denim vests emblazoned with club ‘colors’ over their leather jackets, and mostly rode from bar to bar. Many were war veterans looking for acceptance somewhere in society. They exhibited anti-social behavior that at this period in American history, was as unheard of as it was terrorizing. It’s no wonder that the American Motorcycle Association tried to disassociate themselves from these new outlaw clubs. The AMA said this outlaw 1% of motorcycle riders was responsible for 99% of the crime, mayhem and bad publicity that the public associated with motorcyclists. Consequently, the Pagans, in addition to ancient mythological imagery, latched onto this 1% idea as one of their identifying club icons: The 1% Diamond.
Set in the Pennsylvania foothills of the Appalachian mountain range and New York City, the book chronicles Halls’ tenure as a member of the Pagans ,and later, the president of the New York state, Long Island chapter of the Pagans. It was after a chance encounter with another, much younger Pagan, that Hall decided that if he didn’t write the legends down, the stories would exist only as myth-like oral traditions, soon to be forever lost in history. Hall tells his own story and the stories of his dead best friends, several founding members of the Pagans. What makes Halls’ story interesting and different from other 1%’er stories, is that Hall writes his own story. He doesn’t use a ghost writer to help him with the act of writing. He also writes well. While acting as President of the Long Island chapter of the Pagans, Hall was put in prison for “takin’ care o’ club business”. While in prison, Hall decided to shift his focus. He earned two degrees. Busy ever since, he has held jobs as diverse as bouncer, law clerk, professional gambler, stonemason and Penn State teacher of history, American studies, rhetoric and mathematics. Hall is also a political columnist with over 400 syndicated opinion columns to his credit.
Hall contends that the regions’ Pennsylvania Dutch (German,Dutch,Swede) stock, and isolated, mountain mining town culture, helped, in the Pagans’ rapid domination of the Eastern seaboard. He goes into great, recent, and ancient historical detail of the area and cultures that spawned the Pagans’ raging Berserker mentality. The book focuses on the early days, with dozens of tales of not quite-so-good guys drinking, fighting, and setting the stage for the next phase of the outlaw biker gangs. This phase saw the rise of drug culture, and the addition of organized crime to the outlaw clubs’ activities. Hall was incarcerated while this was getting into full swing. Halls’ own story blends both his personal life and his Pagan club life. His anecdotes are historical snapshots, rich with the context of time and place. Sometimes the uneducated, belligerent outlaw biker in him can’t help but claw itself to the surface, temporarily possessing him while he goes off on rants, grinding old axes. Overall, the book is very readable and entertaining, while also being quite thought provoking.
After reading Riding on the Edge: A Motorcycle Outlaws Tale, it’s easy to see how the early foundations that Hall and his contemporaries cast, continue to affect today’s bikers in many ways.
Verdict: For the budding sociologist/anthropologist: An interesting look at a not often known subculture.
For the student of motorcycle history: A long gone moment in time, that ripples on to this day.
For the Hard Ass in training: Not so much-times have changed and things are way different now.
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